The foundations of modern yoga

Posted 1 October 2018 by Luke Burns

We are faced with a difficult task when it comes to defining contemporary yoga, since there are numerous variants, countless schools, and a broad spectrum of teaching.

In Western nations such as the United Kingdom, it’s more likely to be found in health clubs and gyms, where the focus is placed upon the development of physical fitness and emotional stability. An example can be found on the official website of Iyengar Yoga (a variant of Hatha Yoga), which describes the benefits of their technique as “good health, mental peace, emotional equanimity and intellectual clarity” with no reference to the liberation of the purusha from prakriti, despite citing Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga as the original source of the wisdom.

It’s clear that although yoga has not lost its place within the broader context of Indian spiritual thought, it has nonetheless become increasingly secular; viewed as an alternative therapy or fitness regimen, rather than a route to spiritual salvation.

Even among those who pursue a spiritual goal through Yoga, the emphasis is less on converting to Hinduism, and more on the attainment of personal experience. This should not surprise us, as Linda Woodhead notes, within the United Kingdom, “…a majority have become increasingly hostile or indifferent to institutional forms of religion, whilst remaining open to faith, a spiritual realm, or just ‘something more.’” (Woodhead, 2013)

We can see that this modern form of Yoga is a product of religious and cultural evolution over a period of more than two thousand years, and draws influence not only from the Indian subcontinent, but also the broader political and philosophical background of the Western hemisphere. Although yoga today shares its name with the introspective practices described in the Mahabharata, it’s no longer the same system of thought and no longer the same method of practice. Therefore it’s perhaps inaccurate to claim that modern yoga represents a combination of historical antecedents, if by this we understand a blind collision of Tantric ideas and Samkhya principles.

There is something more subtle involved, a more organic process of assimilation and adaptation, which suggests to us the idea of a species. Like any species, Y. contemporalis represents key traits of its progenitors, but it’s also demonstrably different from them; it’s neither better nor worse than its ancestors, instead it’s adapted to its environment, formed so as to become integral to the overall flow of the ecosystem of spiritual thought and feeling.

The species of yoga we are examining contains within its DNA (its Dharma Nirodha Abhyasa?) strands of thought from earlier species that were found to be successful, and were not degraded by the entropy of time. Other elements were lost or adapted as necessary, and the creature we see today bears only passing similarly to its Vedic heritage. Aside from this, we must also acknowledge that there is no permanence here, no final conclusion to the process, and new variants continually develop.

All of this being said, it’s absolutely true that significant historical events have made their mark upon the flow of religious thought in India, and we can find evidence for this within the principles and practices of contemporary yoga. In order to recognise this evidence, we should first familiarise ourselves with the two concepts of Tantra and Classical Yoga.

What is Tantra?

Tantra is a tradition of religious behaviour based upon a philosophy of immanent divinity, through which the mundane world can be imbued with divine attributes, and individuals can utilise physical manifestations as tools to help them attain liberation.

Swami Nikhilananda wrote that, “the average man wishes to enjoy the material objects of the world, Tantra bids him enjoy these, but at the same time discover in them the presence of God. Mystical rites are prescribed by which, slowly, the sense-objects become spiritualized and sense attraction is transformed into a love of God.” (Swami Nikhilananda, 2007, p.20)

These sense-objects can be statues or idols, which in turn become objects of worship and reverence, but crucially, the human body itself can be recognised as a spiritual entity, a microcosm of the godhead. This runs counter to the advaitic notion of the world-as-illusion, and instead embraces the world as a real - although temporally limited - expression of God.

The practice of Tantra can be divided into two aspects: left and right handed. The right handed (dak?i?acara) is generally considered orthodox today, and deals with aspects such as puja and bhatki, adhering relatively closely to the traditional interpretation of Hinduism; however, the left hand aspect (vamacara) is concerned with unorthodox methods such as the divinisation of sexual union or consuming bodily fluids, and encourages practices which may shock or offend.

The influence of tantric thinking on yoga was largely cultural, with a broadening development of ideas such as the importance of bodily purity, asanas, and breathing (as a route to controlling prana). These practices - rooted as they are in the material structures of human anatomy - have heavily influenced contemporary western yoga, with its particular focus on physical health and wellbeing.

This shift of focus from attaining mental and spiritual power, to cultivating skeleto-muscular finesse is placed in an interesting context by Wendy Doniger, who makes note of Shiva’s role in delivering Tantra to people who are cursed to lose contact with the Veda:

“The ‘left-hand’ doctrines help them by giving them some religion, albeit a heresy, since they are denied the Vedas; the heresy serves as a staircase between non-Vedic and Vedic religion…”

Doniger later suggests that the tantric attitude was that it was, “…better to bow to Shiva with your sandals on than never to bow at all.”

The observation can certainly be made that this pragmatic attitude towards inculcating religion in proportion to the spiritual capacities of the seeker has led to a spiritual exercise in the secular West that has become stripped - in popular consideration - of all overt religion. The idea finds agreement with the first verse of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, when Svatmarama claims that Hatha Yoga “…shines forth as the ladder to be used by one who seeks to scale the heights of raja-yoga.”

Textual sources that expand the principles of tantric yoga include the Shiva Samhita, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and the Gheranda Samhita, all of which were most likely written in the last six hundred years, some distance from the earliest dates for Classical Yoga.

These texts pay particular attention to pranayama and asana, which are given little attention by Patanjali, and scarcely mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita or the Upanishads.

For instance, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Ch2.4) offers a pragmatic and logical explanation of pranayama’s importance in relation to the spiritual topography of the body:

“Whilst the nadis are afflicted by impurity the breath will not pass along the middle course. As long as this is case how can one remove all thoughts from the mind and how can one achieve success?”

While the emphasis is placed on bodily purity, its ultimate goal is still in line with Patanjali’s chitta-vrtti-nirodha, and Svatmarama takes care to establish a connection with the older tradition.

Tantra’s influence is clear in several yogic concepts relating to the subtle energy channels, or nadis, and their confluences along the center of the body, known as cakras. It’s also responsible for the concept of the kundalini, a tremendous storehouse of spiritual potency that is conceived as a coiled serpent at the base of the spine.

Another aspect of Tantra that is found in contemporary yoga is the reverence accorded to gurus, and their status as individuals who have successfully divinised their bodies, essentially becoming an avenue towards God for the aspirant.

What is Classical Yoga?

The earliest references to yoga are found in textual sources such as the Upanishads, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita, which could have been composed as early as 400BCE (Urubshurow, 2008, p.248). Later, the teachings were systematised by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, writing around 150CE (Doniger, 2010, p.505).

The key element in classical yoga is mental control, as the goal is essentially psychological (liberating knowledge, or jñana); relatively little importance is placed upon the material circumstances of one’s embodiment. In contrast to the panoply of asanas that exist today, with their variegated physiological results, the injunction in classical yoga was much more simple: “sit down somewhere quiet.” For instance, in chapter six of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advises:

“Let [the yogi] find a place that is pure and a seat that is restful, neither too high nor too low, with sacred grass and a skin and a cloth thereon. … With upright body, head, and neck, which rest still and move not; with inner gaze which is not restless, but rests still between the eyebrows; with soul in peace, and all fear gone, and strong in the vow of holiness, let him rest with mind in harmony, his soul on me, his God supreme.” (Mascaro, 1962: 70)

And again, in the Svetasvataropani?ad:

“With upright body, head, and neck lead the mind and its powers into thy heart… And when the body is in silent steadiness, breathe rhythmically through the nostrils with a peaceful ebbing and flowing of breath. … Find a quiet retreat for the practise of Yoga, sheltered from the wind, level and clean…” (Mascaro, 1965: 88)

The general principle of yoga, the foundation upon which Patañjali elaborates, is mental control: “yogas-citta-v?tti-nirodha?” cultivated through continuous effort (abhyasa) and detachment from worldly concerns (vairagya); these important traits are also recommended in the Bhagavad Gita, when Krishna notes:

“The mind is indeed restless, Arjuna: it’s indeed hard to train. But by constant practice and by freedom from passions the mind in truth can be trained.” (Mascaro, 1962, 72)

The same precise terms are used here as in sutra 1.12 of the Yoga Sutras, suggesting that they are an integral part of the practice.

This focus is part of a broader spectrum of activity that Patañjali codified as a??anga yoga, or the eight limbed yoga. The different limbs are given in the Sadhana-pada as

  • yama (moral restraints)
  • niyama (observances)
  • asana (posture)
  • pranayama (control of the breath)
  • pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
  • dharana (concentration)
  • dhyana (meditation)
  • samadhi (spiritual absorption)

These limbs are presented in sequence, and are intended to form an ascending series of spiritual techniques that culminate in an experience of absorption in the divine, which not only neutralises earlier psychological impressions (or samskaras) that negatively condition thinking and behaviour, but also allows the practitioner to dissociate their spirit (puru?a) from the physical embodiment of their birth (prak?ti) and achieve freedom from bondage, or isolation (kaivalya).

This interpretation of liberation is based upon the absolute dualism of Samkhya philosophy, and the two strands of thought were closely linked during this early period; it was only later that Vedantic and Tantric attitudes rose to dominance and shaped the yogic cosmological picture.

Conflicts, Congruences, Conclusions…

In today’s yoga we find the echoes of Krishna’s words to Arjuna to seek balance, restrain thought, and devote oneself to the moment; we find the technical terminology of Patañjali, and frequent appeals to his authority.

As yoga has passed through the blossoming of Vedanta, it has been augmented with the cosmology of Sa?karacarya, and the concept of union between atman and brahman has become central, adapting the earlier divisions of puru?a and prak?ti into a new synthesis.

Then, the entire process was reinterpreted in light of Tantra to provide a structured route to liberation that embraced and explored the physical world. This new yoga allowed aspirants to employ signs and symbols along the way that were not abstract constructs; the constructs were instead grafted onto gurus, onto statues and idols, onto the yogi’s own body. The focus had shifted from the cultivation of psycho-spiritual states that transcended the body, to the divinisation of the body itself.

If these systems were to be considered in isolation, there would be countless conflicts of ideology and methodology, yet instead syncretism and adaptation dominate.

Hence, yoga is not confused by these amalgamations of philosophies, but enriched by them. Religious thinkers and practitioners have drawn upon a variety of sources over a prolonged period to create the modern cultural phenomenon of ‘yoga’ but it would be a mistake to regard this as one unbroken chain reaching far back into antiquity, with a perfectly preserved singular practice.


  • Woodhead, L (2013) Why no religion is the new religion, [online] Available at: [accessed 1 October 2018]
  • Swami Nikhilananda (2007) The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center
  • Doniger, W (2010) The Hindus: an Alternative History,Oxford: OUP
  • Mascaro, J (1962) The Bhagavad Gita, London: Penguin Books
  • Mascaro, J (1965) The Upanishads, London: Penguin Books

Luke Burns | Director, OCRS

Luke is the founder and director of the OCRS, and has a First Class Honours Degree in Humanities from the Open University. He lives in Somerset with his wife, Rosie.

You can find him on Twitter here: @lbburns13

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